How to Clean a Gun

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Make Sure The Gun is Not Loaded

Photo of left side of Traditions 45 Colt single action revolver.
Here's the gun we'll be cleaning today. It's a Traditions single action revolver chambered for 45 Colt. Photo © Russ Chastain

Everyone needs to know how to clean a gun! Here's some info to help you do just that.

Before you go about cleaning your gun, make sure it's not loaded. Anytime you hear of a gun being fired unintentionally while it was being cleaned, you can be sure that someone failed in at least one way. Don't let that happen to you!

How you check the gun depends on the type and model of the gun, and if you own a gun you should absolutely know how to load and unload it. If you don't, then head to the nearest gun shop and ask for help. Any gun shop worth anything at all will be happy to show you how to load and unload your gun. If they can't or won't, then steer clear of that shop.

Once you've ensured that the gun is unloaded, check it again, just to be sure. Gun safety should always be given top priority.

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Disassemble the Gun if Feasible/Necessary

Photo of right side of disassembled Traditions 45 Colt single action revolver.
Single action revolvers are usually pretty easy to disassemble for cleaning. This one comes apart into three main parts. Photo © Russ Chastain

Contrary to what some folks believe, most guns rarely (if ever) need to be thoroughly disassembled for cleaning - but many firearms do benefit from some disassembly. The amount or degree of disassembly required can vary greatly.

A double action revolver, for example, generally requires no disassembly for cleaning. A single action revolver, as seen illustrated here, only needs minimal disassembly.

It's wise to consult an owner's manual for your particular gun, if possible, to determine how much it should be disassembled, and how to accomplish that.

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Check to See How Much Cleaning is Required

Photo of Traditions 45 Colt single action revolver, showing powder fouling on frame.
There's a good bit of powder fouling built up on the frame at the rear of the barrel. Photo © Russ Chastain

Take a good look at the gun, to help determine how much cleaning will be required. In the case of revolvers, you will always find some degree of powder fouling on the front of the cylinder and on the rear of the barrel. This is because the bullet must travel from the cylinder into the barrel, and when the bullet crosses the gap between them, gases from the burning powder escape through that gap.

You will usually find powder fouling inside the chambers in the cylinder, and on the sides and at the rear of the cylinder, too. All of the frame is susceptible, but certain areas will allow fouling to build up more than others.

Powder fouling is easy to see on some guns, not so much on others. It will generally have a dull matte appearance, but it may appear shiny if it's been wet with solvent or oil. It is built up from the surface of the gun, and with close inspection this usually becomes apparent.

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Clean up Everything But the Barrel

Photo of Traditions 45 Colt single action revolver, cleaning powder fouling with brush.
A plastic bristled brush can help remove a lot of the fouling. You often need something more for the tough stuff, though. Photo © Russ Chastain
I generally like to clean the barrel last. One reason is that I am not fond of barrel cleaning. In fact, it's my least favorite part of the process. Another good reason is that I don't want the stuff I'm cleaning off other areas of the gun to get into my nice clean barrel.

If the gun is a semi-auto or another type of gun that allows easy access to the trigger group or other mechanical areas of the gun, I like to clean those first. Usually, a light brushing with a soft-bristled brush will be all that's necessary. Take care to remove dust, dirt, grit, and fouling from such areas.

Light powder fouling is easily removed using a soft cloth rag. Heavier stuff requires more work, and some tools. I routinely use paper towels and solvent, plastic bristle brushes like the one seen above, bronze bristle brushes of that same type, and scrapers for fouling removal. Don't use steel brushes; they're too hard and will scratch your gun.

When using a scraper of any kind, be careful. If the scraper is harder or more abrasive than the material you're trying to clean, you can easily cause permanent damage to your gun. That's why brass makes a good scraper on most guns. Steel is too hard (and aluminum too abrasive) for use as a scraper.

Solvent is useful, because it softens the fouling - but sometimes, scraping is just the best way to remove heavy fouling.

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Clean the Bore

Photo of Traditions 45 Colt single action revolver, with bore-cleaning stuff.
To clean the bore well you need a cleaning rod, a good bronze bore brush, a caliber-specific patch jag, some patches, and some solvent. The only thing not shown here is the solvent. Photo © Russ Chastain

Next, it's time to clean the gun's bore. For this, you will need a cleaning rod that's longer - and smaller in diameter - than the barrel. You will also need a bronze bore brush of the correct size for your gun's caliber, some cleaning patches, and ideally, a cleaning jag to match your gun's caliber.

Don't use a plastic bore brush, because it won't do the job well. Plastic brushes are too soft to dig through the fouling inside the barrel. Likewise, don't use hard brushes such as stainless steel, because those are too hard and are likely to damage your gun. Remember the scraper discussion? Same principle.

Given the chance, clean from the breech (rear) end of the barrel. This helps reduce the chance of damaging the gun's crown (if it's rifled) - and it also makes it easier to start the brush, because the rear end of the barrel is almost always larger than the muzzle, even when the chamber is not made integral with the barrel.

Apply some solvent to your gun's bore, or to the cleaning brush. Here is where a spray-type solvent shines, because you can squirt a little into the barrel or onto the brush. Never dip the brush into the solvent. Doing so will pollute your nice clean solvent with all the nasty stuff that your brush has cleaned out of barrels in the past.

Clean That Bore

Run the brush through the gun's bore - all the way. Then pull it back through. Never reverse direction with a metal-bristled brush when it's inside a gun's barrel. Why not? Because the bristles are leaning backwards as you push the brush through the bore, and when you stop the brush and pull it the other way, the bristles have to bend to allow the brush to travel that direction. Once that happens, your brush is just about worthless for its intended caliber, because its diameter is reduced and it just won't clean well at all.

Allow the brush to rotate with the gun's rifling, if rifling is present. Many cleaning rods have handles that swivel for that reason.

Next, use a jag to push a clean dry patch through the bore. After that, I will often turn the patch over and push it through again.

Ideally, you will repeat the brush/patch process until the patches always come out nice and clean. I have actually done that, but only on rare occasions. Most often, the patches will begin to look clean and then I'll give the bore a good dose of solvent and brushing, and they'll be nasty again, so I end up getting most of the fouling out and stopping when I get tired of the process.

It Doesn't Have to be Perfect

The fact is, making a gun's bore perfectly clean is difficult, and is almost always unnecessary anyhow (speaking only of guns that shoot smokeless powder; always thoroughly clean all the fouling from black powder guns, because it's corrosive). So get rid of the worst of the fouling and clean the bore until you're tired of doing so or until it's clean, leave the bore with a light coat of some kind of rust inhibitor inside, and you should be in good shape.

If the gun is a revolver, run your brush through each chamber in the cylinder. You may need to use a slightly larger brush, or wrap a worn-out brush with a patch, to get a good snug fit in the chambers. On other types of guns, be sure to clean the chamber well. This is a very important part of the gun, especially on semi-automatics.

A Word on Patch Jags

Listen - I'm a cheapskate at times, but even I appreciate the value of a good jag when cleaning any gun with rifling. The slotted patch holders that came in most gun cleaning kits are almost worthless. When you're patching out a gun's bore, you want the patch to rub against the bore snugly and uniformly, in order to remove fouling. You just can't accomplish that with one of those el cheapo patch holders.

Get a good caliber-specific jag for each caliber being cleaned and a good supply of cotton cleaning patches, and you'll be able to clean your gun well. And if you prefer, old t-shirts often make good cleaning patches, if you're willing to spend the time cutting them up.

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Clean up the Excess Solvent

Photo of Traditions 45 Colt single action revolver showing clean frame.
This is the "after" photo of the frame. The powder fouling has been removed with the help of brushes, a brass scraper, and some solvent. Photo © Russ Chastain
Once you've finished with the bore, there will probably be solvent on both ends of the barrel. Clean that off with a rag or a paper towel, making sure to get in all the nooks and crannies. You don't want to leave any solvent on the gun, unless it's a CLP (clean/lube/protect) type of product. Speaking of CLP, using one product for all things is a compromise which makes life a little easier in some ways, but they are generally weak on the solvent side of things.
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Put it Back Together, and be Happy.

Photo of Traditions 45 Colt single action revolver after cleaning, with ammo.
This gun is now clean and happy again. Photo © Russ Chastain

After removing all the solvent and old residue, give the parts a good wipe-down with a protectant of some sort. I often use Militec-1 on my guns, and after many years of doing so, it's still my favorite. Put the gun back together, test its function to make sure it works, and you're done.

Now you can sit back and fondle your play-purty, knowing you have done your part to ensure it a long and happy life. Remember to observe the basic rules of gun safety, and all will be well with the world.

- Russ Chastain